Ode to the minibus
ILLUSTRATION: CEM KIZILTUĞ
“I’ll be so happy when the city gets rid of these minibuses,” my husband, Can, said the other day as a blue one stuffed with people cut in front of our car and stopped to pick up yet another passenger.
“They are the reason traffic is so bad in this city!” he pronounced in frustration. I have my own ideas on why traffic is so bad in İstanbul, but don’t blame it on the minibuses. I blame it on the amount of cars people have, the lack of a carpooling system and the general disrespect the average driver in İstanbul has for their fellow motorists. The people who ride the minibuses and other forms of public transport keep more vehicles off the road. Public transport is cheap and convenient. For years I relied on it and really miss living in a part of the city easily accessible to mass transit. By far one of my favorites was the minibus.
When friends hear me laud the minibus they look at me like I am crazy. Generally run down in appearance, they come in varying shades of cream, blue and green. When I first moved to Turkey nine years ago, the easiest and cheapest way to get to my workplace was to hop on a minibus. Like a city bus, minibuses follow a set route. These are written on the “hat” on top of the vehicle. To further help, the hats are often lit with a different color to indicate different routes. Several had routes near my house at the time, but I needed to catch a minibus with a “red” hat to get to and from work. Popular stops along that route will be written on a black card on the passenger side of the minibus windshield. Although they follow routes similar to city buses, they are more convenient for a couple of reasons. First, they do not just pick up and drop off passengers at set stops. Rather, you can hail them or ask to get off anywhere along the route. Second, you do not need a card or ticket purchased beforehand to ride them. You pay cash, small bills and change preferred.
When I first moved to Turkey, minibuses were on almost every road in İstanbul, including the highways. Then, the opening of the Metrobüs, a bus that travels along its own lane down the middle of the highway, got rid of all of the other public transportation along the E-5. The most common route I used back in the day was the minibus from Tarabya to the 4. Levent metro stop. Now, the subway goes all the way to Tarabya and İstinye, making the need for the minibus out there almost non-existent, too. Sadly, I see a trend of fading out this mode of public transport altogether.
During a typical ride on a minibus it is possible to see a wide spectrum of İstanbul society. Everyone has to work together on board in order for the system to work. When getting on the minibus, you will either sit if there is a space available or stand wherever you can. It’s best to have your money ready before boarding, so that you can easily hand it to the driver and say your destination. You can also pass your money to the passenger in front of you, who will pass it on to another person and another until it gets to the driver. Your change will be returned in the same way. When I first rode one I was amazed that no one thought of stealing another person’s money. The honor system works very well. The driver is a master at multi-tasking. He will usually be processing fares and returning change while simultaneously driving, looking for new passengers and stopping when requested for passengers to disembark. Very rarely have I seen a driver give back incorrect change, even when several people are paying their fares at the same time.
Like many other vehicles in Turkey, the minibus is usually lovingly decorated. The one I rode yesterday had anything and everything related to old Cadillac memorabilia. The driver had three different rearview mirrors, all at different angles and heights, and all with a model Cadillac dangling from it. Next to the gear stick was an elaborate tray with several built-in cups, each filled with a different denomination of change. Cadillac stickers, hood ornaments and models were stuck all over it, at odd intervals. Attached to the windshield was a large, hollow ram’s horn. What did he need that for on the minibus? Just another thing to muse over during the jerky, constant stop-and-go ride. Their big brother, the city bus, tolerates the minibus. He weaves in and out of those long, caterpillar-like buses, many times stealing their passengers, but there is no rivalry between the two. Maybe the buses know, as the rest of the city does, that the minibus is gradually being phased out.
Maybe I am alone in being saddened by this. Other modes of transport have their merits, but the minibus is truly unique. Did I ever have a bad experience on a minibus? Yes, but the interesting times far outnumbered the bad experiences. Was I ever groped or harassed? Twice, and both times when I alerted those around me the driver stopped and the people on board or the driver threw the offender off. One driver even called a few friends to make sure they didn’t pick him up on their buses. Being bigger than a dolmuş (shared taxi) but smaller than a bus means that while quite a few people can fit on a minibus, they can all easily be seen and heard by the driver. Maybe I didn’t have very many bad experiences because I never got on an empty minibus, or one that did not have another woman on it. Whether standing or sitting, I always tried to gravitate towards another woman or a couple. I almost always had my money ready before boarding, so no unnecessary fumbling in my bag or wallet while clinging on for dear life. These are all simple guidelines that saved me from trouble.
Riding public transportation is so much more pleasurable than driving. I hate İstanbul drivers, and usually get into several verbal fights on the road. I have become just as aggressive as everyone else in order to get from point A to point B. When I rode the minibus, I was so much calmer. I am sure our driver fought with other people, and they with him. However, the people on the minibus offer seats to one another, or have various polite exchanges. So different from the daily fights I endure while driving. Listening to the conversations around me I not only bettered my Turkish but also really knew what was going on and had my finger on the pulse of the city. I never relied on news or the newspapers then; I could just hear and feel what was going on during my daily commute. I miss that. While many people might be happy to see the minibus go, it will be a sad day for me. Hopefully that day is a long way off.
Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at [email protected] for comments or questions.